Many Things Lie Below The Surface of Columbus

Listen to the Story

I was reminded a few days ago of how fragile cities can be when our recently expanded and rather well-appointed Convention Center found itself with a foot of water covering much of its floor. Seems a water main sprang a leak and made the place into an inadvertent water park. It could have been worse. At least the Center was generally empty at the time .

When one visits downtown Columbus – or any other city for that matter – we see a place of asphalt and concrete and clay whose towering buildings are a monument to both the creativity and energy of the people who built them.

Because we cannot see what lies underneath our feet, we often tend to forget what is there. What is there is the place that Columbus once was and much of what we have made it since.

A few examples.

As late as the 1830′s, a person traveling north on High Street from Statehouse Square had to cross a footbridge at what is now Spring Street. On the high ground a few blocks to the east of High Street were a series of natural springs. The flow from the springs came together and formed a creek several yards wide and several feet deep that swept through a ravine down to the river. The creek was finally enclosed in a brick sewer and Spring Street was built above it. But the creek is still there and from time to time the pavement is weakened by the rush of water below.

Still, no collapse on Spring Street can match what happened on West Broad Street in the summer of 1986.

Downtown Columbus sits on a bedrock of stone. But between the stone and the pavement of city streets is a mixture of dirt, clay and gravel. Occasionally that mix can shift and form what is popularly referred to a sinkhole. A sinkhole thirty feet deep opened in West Broad Street less than a block from the Statehouse in 1986 in a street full of cars. One of them – a nice looking Mercedes – ended up in the bottom of the sinkhole and became the subject of a picture flashed around the world.

But more important than the shifting of a creek or the opening of a sinkhole is the city beneath the streets of Columbus.

If one looks a picture of downtown a hundred years ago, one of the first things that strikes the eye is the enormous number of wires stretching from poles every few yards along every street in the city.

They are not there now.

In addition to storm and sanitary sewer lines, gas lines and water lines, most of downtown Columbus is crisscrossed by a plethora of wires and cables carrying electric power, telephone calls and other digital information.

Simply keeping track of where all of these lines are is quite a task in its own right. Inspecting this infrastructure, repairing it and improving it is another matter altogether.

When more and more people decide to live close to one another in a small space, we should not be too surprised if one piece or another of this incredibly complex fabric might become a bit unraveled from time to time.

What is truly worth noting is how few of these incidents do occur and how quickly they can usually be fixed. Columbus is a remarkable place and it works extraordinarily well – even with some water on the floor.

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